American Idol

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An 89 year old man who hasn’t gotten a haircut in months sits at the dais, alone, accompanied by a hotel ballroom all-purpose drinking glass filled with Coca-Cola and a stack of printed slides. The slides are text-only, black font on stark white. No frills.

The speaker is the most legendary investor and business personality in the world. His financial conquests have accrued an almost mythological tincture in their telling and retelling over the decades. He is Daedalus, having built a labyrinth of intersecting interests from insurance to electricity, and then a pair of waxen wings to fly above it all, with just a few dozen employees and contracts written on cocktail napkins. He is Midas, touching afflicted financial corporations in a time of mass insolvency with his rescue money and, more importantly, his imprimatur. One-eyed Odin sitting beneath the eaves of Yggdrasil, having paid a bodily price to have drunk from the Well of Wisdom. He is the Oracle, with tens of thousands braving the journey and the Omaha Embassy Suites to hear his annual pronouncements. …

Anyway, the old man spoke on Saturday. For a long time. The sparsity of text on each slide was in no way a signifier of whether or not he had much to say. Buffett was, as always, loquacious and brimming with interesting statistics – American history, market returns, inflation – turns out the Louisiana Purchase, at just 3 cents an acre, was an absolute steal.

But it wasn’t the same.

Josh Brown, This Version of Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett is the American Idol of investing. He is, as Josh Brown puts it so well here, an impossible combination of Daedalus, Midas, Odin and Oracle. He is a mythic figure, with a public persona and legend that goes far beyond his considerable investment skills.

Warren Buffett is a performer. That’s not a knock on him. Not at all! Public performance is what is required to be a mythic figure. Public performance is what is required to evolve from just a really good singer, someone who can hit all the notes, into someone who transcends mere singing and becomes an American Idol.

Really good investors – like really good singers – are not exactly common, but they’re not exactly rare, either. Transforming yourself from a really good investor into a Great Investor, on the other hand … well, that IS rare. And it only happens through the active creation of a personal mythology. It only happens through public performance.

There is no more powerful venue for public performance than a live audience.

This is how legends are made, whether you are a singer or an investor or a politician. This is how you build a following, not in the sense of casual fandom, but in the sense of zealotry. This is how Warren Buffett used the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting to transform himself from a really good investor – probably a great investor – into a Great Investor.

Looks like fun, right? I’ve never made the hajj to Omaha myself, but I know exactly what it feels like. It feels like an SEC football game. It feels like a performance at the Apollo. It feels like a campaign rally. It feels like an inauguration. It feels like a papal sermon in St. Peter’s Square. It feels like a Veterans Day parade.

It feels AMAZING, and that’s true whether you are there in person or watching on TV. It’s better in person, for sure. But it’s not bad on TV.

So what happens when you take the live audience away from a great performer like Warren Buffett?

We, the audience watching from home, don’t think the performance is as good.

Not because the actual physical performance is any different! But because we, the audience watching from home, no longer have the cues to tell us how wonderful the performance is. The crowd can no longer watch the crowd, and that means everything for how the crowd consumes the performance.

This is why sitcoms have laugh tracks. This is why executions used to be held in public. This is why coronations and inaugurations still are. This is why, more than 25 years later, China still prevents any images of the protest crowds in Tiananmen Square from getting on domestic Internet sites. This is how riots start. This is how cathedrals are built. It is the power of the crowd watching the crowd, and for my money it is the most powerful social force in human history.

When the crowd can’t see the crowd, the crowd loses its interest in the performance. We get bored. We tune out.

Like Josh says, it’s just not the same.

Here, I’ll prove it.

In mid-March, the producers of American Idol made a tough decision. Just as they were about to begin their live performance schedule in Los Angeles, where the 20 Idol wannabes would be whittled down week by week, COVID-19 lockdowns made it impossible to maintain that production model. Rather than cancel the season altogether, the producers decided to retool with two weeks of filler material focused on the contestants’ backstories, followed by a resumed competition filmed at the contestants’ and the judges’ homes.

So we went from this in the 2019 American Idol season …

To this in the 2020 season …

Where the contestants literally sing to the camera from their living room or garage, and the entire show takes on the production values of a Zoom conference call.

To be clear, the actual singing is terrific! Seriously, there’s a ton of talent (diverse talent, too!) on this year’s show. The backing musicians are AMAZING, and the acoustics are not as bad as you would fear. No idea what sort of mixing or editing technology is required to make the final product turn out as well as it does, but the producers deserve a lot of credit here.

There’s just one problem. We, the television audience, think it sucks.

I compiled the apples-to-apples ratings data for the first twelve episodes of the 2019 and 2020 American Idol seasons (Sunday night to Sunday night, same network, same time slot), both on absolute numbers of viewers and the 18-49 year-old demographic (which really drives the economics of these shows). The line drawn between after the April 5, 2020 episode is when the production formats for the 2019 and 2020 seasons diverged.

With the elimination of a live audience format, year-over-year ratings have collapsed.

Seriously, with these ratings I’ll be surprised if this season of American Idol isn’t canceled before they crown a winner. Yes, the show still holds up pretty well against its time slot competition, but this just isn’t viable for whatever budget and projections ABC had coming into the season.

American Idol ratings by episode, 2020 vs. 2019

Take away a great performer’s live audience, and you take away their source of Narrative power.

That’s true for American Idol. That’s true for Warren Buffett. It’s also true for Donald Trump.

You think Trump is happy to replace his live audience campaign rallies with televised press conferences? You think he doesn’t realize this is killing him politically?

Whatever you think of Donald Trump, if you don’t realize he is a great performer and a master of the Common Knowledge Game, you’re just not paying attention. Without live performances, he loses a major power source for the November election.

I think this is a big reason why Trump is pushing so hard to reopen battleground states.

And one more thing …

If any of the sports leagues are contemplating TV audience-only competition, my advice is to think again.

The power of the crowd watching the crowd is also true for sports leagues. Maybe more true for sports than for any social function other than war. Without a live crowd for the TV crowd to take its cues from, the TV crowd will quickly lose engagement and interest. Regardless of the level of competition, a disembodied audience is a bored audience.

And that’s the only true death for any performer in any field. That’s the only thing you can’t recover from in the modern age. Boredom.

Welcome to the age of bread and circuses, my friends. Same as it ever was. Especially here in the age of COVID-19.


  1. This was easily among the best ET notes, Ben! You’re 100% on point - it’s a truth hidden in plain sight.

  2. Well written, as always.
    As to your final point, or warning to the Sports leagues about competing in empty stadiums;
    The issue with the various sports leagues and competitions around the world is survival.
    They have to play to secure broadcasting revenue. for eg, in my backyard, the National Rugby League Commissioner has publicly revealed that if play doesn’t resume prior to Sept 2020, the game will be lost to Australia.

    So I guess its “Yay, Employment !!!”

    Yes, boring, I agree cause the last two rounds of competition before lockdown were played in early March to empty stadiums and yes, it was very different; no atmosphere, ( you actually can “feel” as well as see the emptiness even on TV ). Everyone will suffer, ratings will surely go down, but at least they have a shot at survival.
    Methinks it will not stop pro sports resuming asap in numerous countries around the globe.

  3. Well said, Ben. Zoom can’t reach us the same as a live performance. Virtual church, anyone? I didn’t think so…

  4. Noticed there was no round 2 of the NBA’s HORSE competition. Would have been more interesting if each letter earned was accompanied by a shot of tequila. Thank you for the connect to JB’s article which is an excellent companion to your own wonderful piece.

    Maybe a positive outcome of this is that we will get back to more doing and less spectating.

  5. Great note Ben. Very very interesting observation about the importance of the audience seeing the audience. I guess that was a big part of the power of the newsreel footage of Hitler’s speeches at the annual Nuremberg Rally. Just the fact that that the newsreel audience sees that there were thousands of people in front of him giving him their full rapt attention makes him seem powerful (“social proof”). He was also reportedly a fantastic and passionate orator of course.

    On a different point:
    The comparison photos of the American Idol contestants show many things different in addition to the lack of a visible audience: Very dressed up glamorous clothes vs dressed down; no spectacular lighting and stage decoration at home; no stage that signifies a difference between the performers and the audience which if present raises the performers to a special status just by being on a stage; the contestants all together on the stage in the pre-COVID-19 photo, which enhances the feeling of competition and of this being a gathering for “an event”.

    This makes me think that the TV production company screwed up by making it obvious that the contestants were at home. They should have shipped in a green screen (or a can of green paint and a paintbrush) so that they could replace the background with something exotic, and some colored lights, had the contestants dressed up to the nines, and made it feel like it was something special, something in the realm of fantasy, not Fred sitting in a tee shirt in his living room.

    I like the old school reel to reel tape decks one of the competitors had in the background. A nice retro touch. My Dad had a few of them, so it takes me back.

  6. Ben- I have frequently, and for a long time, averred that sport teams have become our new totems- the central rallying cry, and focal point of the universe for our tribe. (This occurred to me after watching a George Carlin comedy bit regarding what do we root for when we root for our team- the players change twice a year, no one even knows who they are anymore, the only thing that remains is the uniform with a number on it, so basically we are rooting for “laundry.” He was right, but not completely, we are rooting for our tribe!)
    This is part of the same set of psychosocial forces that lead to the crowd watching behavior of all of us. Of note, in a recent article in City Journal, entitled: “What Do We Clap For When We Clap For Government?”, I kept thinking of our “yay government” meme here. I think you (and others) would find it an interesting read:
    Please keep up the great work.
    Signed as a member of the pack far enough away that i may not make it to many meetings, but still thinking of all of us, and also working to spread the word and change the narrative one person at a time.
    Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose (i can only hope-there really is no other choice, below us is the abyss)
    Barry Newman

  7. In Bull Durham the radio sportscaster used sound effects as he relayed an away game to his audience. The crowd watching the crowd…so true. We see it in markets every day.

  8. I like virtual church – the good padre can’t see me dozing off during his sermon!

  9. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    Another great note! On a somewhat superficial level, there is a precedent for a reality competition show being canceled before the winner was announced – the third season of Last Comic Standing which the mighty Alonzo Bodden won. I’m not sure if the episode announcing his win was ever aired!

    Thankfully he has gone on to have a significant career (and he did get the prize money for what it’s worth!). In fact, and this does speak to the theme of the note, I attended an online comedy performance of his a few days ago which was actually really entertaining. I think it was a combination of the fact that he is just so damn funny, and that they let the Zoom ‘audience’ have their video and audio on so the comedian could see and hear the laughs. It obviously had to be closely moderated (I was muted for laughing too hard, hahaha!), but it seemed to work fairly well.

    All the best to the pack!

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum


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